July 13, 2012
By Julia Stronks and Aaron Korthuis
This is the third in a series of four articles exploring specific aspects of immigration reform.
The border fence between the United States and Mexico was a hot topic of debate when Republican candidates were vying for the 2012 presidential candidate position. Rep. Michelle Bachman (R – Minn.) wanted a double fence, and Herman Cain favored an electric fence. Mitt Romney also wants the fence, which currently covers 650 miles of the 2,000-mile border, to be completed, while Texas governor Rick Perry argued that at between 18 and 20 million dollars per mile, completing the fence is not cost-effective. Meanwhile, polling demonstrates that almost 70 percent of Americans favor completion of the fence.
A Christian approach to a border fence requires the application of a number of principles that center on issues of government stewardship and public justice.
At first glance, it seems that a fence designed to enforce current immigration law is a good tool toward invoking rule of law. If the fence works and does not cause injustices, Christians on the right and left could find completion of the fence to be in keeping with their stated faith-based principles.
However, a number of things cause us to find that expanding the fence would violate the principles Christians have agreed on. First, a border fence may not in fact accomplish the goal of enforcing the law. There is little documented evidence that the fence has decreased unauthorized border crossings; the reduction in illegal crossings over the past several years has been attributed to a better economy in Mexico and increased presence of border patrol agents along the border itself.
In fact, the United States Border Patrol, charged with stopping the flow of undocumented immigrants, does not favor fence completion. Michael Fisher, chief of the Border Patrol agency, testified to Congress that the fence as it currently exists should not be expanded. Though Border Patrol agents say that the fence in urban areas helps slow down illegal border crossing, they also point out that the expense of maintaining the fence in rural areas outweighs its usefulness. In one year, over 4,000 breaches to the fence caused physical damage that had to be fixed. Agents argue that “boots on the ground,” more “forward stations” placing agents closer to the border and unmanned drones patrolling the border are much better solutions for border patrol.
Second, development of the fence has resulted in violation of the rights of border residents legally in the United States. They raise legitimate complaints that federal fence construction threatens their property rights, because some of their land gets left south of the fence and their property is divided. The route of the proposed fence divides three Native American tribes and originally was designed to run right through the University of Texas at Brownsville.
Given these considerations, a Christian perspective on immigration policy would not favor border fence completion. The border should be enforced using the tools that the Border Patrol has already identified as best suited to their goals: more advanced surveillance drones and more agents on the ground.
We must enforce the border in a way that respects property rights and even acknowledges the dignity of those who are trying to cross the border illegally. Ultimately, we need comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes the socio-economic realities of emigrant-producing countries. The Pew Research Center documented the fact that the current net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped – and may even have reversed. Pew attributes this change to a weaker U.S. job and housing construction market, stronger border enforcement and the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rates, suggesting that that at least part of our immigration reform plan should be directed at developing the economic health of our border countries.
—Julia K. Stronks has a law degree and is a professor of political science at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Aaron Korthuis is about to begin work in Honduras for the Association for a More Just Society; he plans to attend law school in a year.